What’s It Like to Live in Northern California’s First Tiny-Home Community?
Minimalism — the conscious downsizing of one’s life by reducing material possessions—is a hot-button topic as of late. These minimalists present a newfound way of looking at wealth—a viewpoint defined not by the sheer amount things you obtain in your 80-ish years on this planet but by the quality of the relationships and experiences you amass.
This way of life, void of nauseatingly expensive SOMA mortgages and full-size beds that double as couches, is on full display at Northern California’s only (legal) tiny-house community—Delta Bay. At the 12-acre RV park and tiny-house resort, nestled on the banks of the San Joaquin River about 40 minutes outside Stockton, the first homes on wheels started rolling in just four years ago.
Over half of Americans who were canvassed said that they’d consider living in a space less than or equal to 600 square feet.
I experienced this frugal, quasi-barebones oasis myself firsthand at the community’s biannual Camp Tiny House event earlier this April, where tiny-house owners quite literally open their doors and allow curious minds to tour their properties and ask any and all questions. And I was, by no means, alone.
Julie Rockwell, a beguiling Berkeley-based artist and “tiny-house hopeful” who, like myself, is keen on simplifying her living situation, was among the 150-plus people in attendance that day, having made the journey out for the mid-afternoon weekend soiree.
“The last one they held wasn’t nearly this crowded,” she added, chewing on a chocolate croissant. “People, including myself, are so fed up with paying so much to rent so little in the Bay Area, which is why getting out of Dodge and setting up shop in an airy, organized small space is now quickly becoming a tangible pipe dream.”
Tiny-home living is on the rise. In a 2018 study conducted by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), over half of Americans who were canvassed said that they’d consider living in a space less than or equal to 600 square feet. This, by itself, is eye-opening, especially when you consider that the lusted “American Dream,” historically speaking, always included a multi-bedroom house, a 15-plus-year financial commitment and maybe an HOA.
But this 180-degree lifestyle pivot from that former pipe dream shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Nearly 60 percent of Americans don’t currently boast more than $1,000 to their name, let alone the means to put down the recommended 20 percent on a stationary house. That, plus overwhelming student-loan payments, a lack of savings for retirement and general money woes, makes “tiny living” offer some semblance of financial freedom.
Just ask Laurie Erceg.
After becoming “suddenly single” in 2014, Erceg decided to take an RV trip across the country by herself. Not unlike other tiny-house dwellers and newfound owners, her Oprah ah-ha moment happened in front of a television screen.
“When I got back, I saw some HGTV show about people building and living in tiny homes. And something inside me lit up, and I was like, ‘Oh, I want that,’” she said to me during a conversation inside her 175-square-foot domicile, complete with a purple-hued door. “It was such a simpler and, honestly, more affordable way to live the life I wanted. I could breathe easy knowing I could cover my bills and the cost of living every month without a second thought.”
“That, and I wanted to start traveling more too,” the quasi-retired career consultant added.
And when your wheel-able house stretches no more than two car lengths long, you can bring a slice of home with you wherever you choose to go. In fact, the largest and longest home currently sitting at Delta Bay comes in at roughly 28 feet long and somewhere around 300-plus square feet. Or, to put that figure into a more digestible nugget, the size of a small studio apartment.
A space like that in San Francisco would rent for a soul-crushing $2,500 a month on average sans utilities. To the contrary, you could park your tiny house — which you’d likely own — for $650 a month at Delta Bay instead, with your water included. Electric bills here rarely top $30. It’s a penny pincher’s paradise located off Brannan Island Road in Isleton. Tiny homes, which typically price out at $30,000 to $45,000, can also easily be fitted with off-grid solar paneling, wood-only heating and more, helping further ease your monthly budget.
However, there’s a fine line between frugal savings and nightmarish scenarios when it comes to the construction of your tiny house, so I learned. Your pipes could freeze and properly burst in the dead of an East Coast winter should you forego insulation. Thankfully, Delta Bay never sees the mercury drop below freezing.
The compost toilet may or may not reek due to how it was installed. Electrical wiring could fray inside the wooden walls and properly cause a massive fire. Mildew and mold could form throughout the home because the shower steam condenses on untreated wood panelings. The list goes on.
The problems, too, aren’t just related to DIY builds. I heard firsthand just how fickle and shoddy some tiny-house builders can be.
At just 23 years old, Sara Jade has lived a more peripatetic life than most 50-somethings, having lived for months in national parks, her car in Austin and with her parents in various dwellings along the East Coast while growing up. But after her stint in the Lone Star state, Jade had enough with the sweltering in-car conditions that come with vehicular living. That’s when she decided to go all in on having her 28-foot essentials-only haven.
It’s a portable wood-cladded haven I very much gawked over, all while she waxed on about her hellacious builder. Sage-scented incense smoldered and smoked in the background, the cooled ashes falling on the butcher-board kitchen countertop.
“I hired a builder to make me my dream tiny house, something I could grow with and move wherever I ended up,” She added while leaning on the entryway to her storage area. “It was a disaster.”
“Instead of taking three months to build it, it took them nine. And when it was time for me to pick it up, there was still work that needed to be done. I couldn’t wait any longer, though, so I cut my losses. I still love my tiny house—don’t get me wrong—but I’ve got some work to do still.”
Lackluster contractors are something to be wary of, even if their rates are less than those of others. But without a shadow of a doubt, the worst, most egregious event that could happen due to skimping on the initial build is ending up with a portable abode that’s not Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) certified. An accreditation, which costs no more than a $100, that’s mandated by all legal tiny-house communities show in California.
At the event, where gentle air and blue skies filled the atmosphere over the Sacramento Delta, Nick Mosley of California Tiny Homes helmed a panel populated by a sizable slice of the park’s tiny-house inhabitants. Aside from cliched nods to Instagram and echoes of closet-space practicality, the conversation’s focus was on the legalities of tiny-house living, especially about where you can put them — RVIA licensed or not.
“A lot of RV parks don’t allow them because they lack proper licensing or, either, they don’t want tiny homes…or they don’t have spots for them,” added Jeremy Spencer and his husband, Ryan Kelley. Their quaint tiny house, filled with quirky knickknacks and enough charisma to furnish a Bel Air mansion, is positioned between two like-built homesteads on the property.
The couple relocated with their home from Rochester, New York, after Kelly snagged a job on the West Coast. Alas, they made the 2,000-odd-mile trek with their RVIA-certified home to the Bay Area not too long ago. Like countless other tiny-home owners, living a bit under the radar on private property is usually option A, but it’s far from ideal. Delta Bay’s erected tiny-house community is a welcome option B.
Even though the park’s 132 slots are mostly taken by conventional travel trailers and fixed cottages, about a dozen swaths of land are dedicated to tiny homes, with that number expected to grow in the coming months. The tiny-house plots sit on level, lush ground that gives lodgers patios, barbeque pits, potted gardens and even the odd above-ground koi pond.
Delta Bay Park is, at its core, an RV park, complete with a bustling community center, chlorinated pool, playgrounds and access to a sense of community that exudes from every reserved plot. People here make eye contact with one another, say hello and wave goodbye. They ask questions about what type of coffee bean you brewed in the morning if you made it with that AeroPress you previously hawked online last week, or whether or not you intend to down a beer at Mei Wah later.
Corinne Corley, a retired Kansas City lawyer and laudable wordsmith in her own right, who was the third tiny-house resident in Delta Bay, is, for me, the matriarch of this frugal fellowship. (She’s also the park’s own go-to journalist-blogger extraordinaire.)
For Corley, tiny-house living offered approachable means to many needs. Downsizing allowed her to embrace her creative career, focus on her health and, above all else, reacquaint herself with what truly matters in life: family, friends and the priceless intangibles of everyday life.
“You see, living isn’t about the things you see or the things you want; it’s the time spent with those you like and love,” she harped, eating a tea cookie. “When you strip down your life to what’s important and what’s not, your days become clearer. You smile more. You feel better. People notice you because you’re content, not bogged down with content-filling acres of space in a four-bedroom home you live alone in. When you walk away from materials and simplify things, time opens up, and you make connections with people who may follow you for a lifetime. Isn’t that what being alive is about?”
Heading home, due southwest, to my rented room inside a shared house I knew I no longer wanted, I wrote a goal in my journal later that night —“Build a tiny house by the time you’re 35.”